Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The

(ot Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari) German movie (1919). Decla-Bioscop. Pr Erich Pommer. Dir Robert Wiene. Screenplay Hans Janowitz, Karl Mayer. Starring Lil Dagover (Jane Olsen, the Girl), Hans Feher (Francis, the Student), Werner Krauss (Dr Caligari), Hans V Twardowsky (Alan, the Student's Friend), Conrad Veidt (Cesare, the Somnambulist). circa 70 mins. B/w, silent.

One day – young Francis tells his companion in a tranquil garden – the Carnival came to his hometown of Holstenwall, and with it the sinister Dr Caligari with his somnambulist, Cesare, who had slept in a coffin for 25 years. Still sleeping, Cesare was lured nightly to perform feats of Prophecy for the paying customers – and also, secretly, to commit murders at Caligari's behest. Francis at last cottoned on to what was happening, and chased Caligari to a lunatic asylum, where he and an initially incredulous staff discovered the awful truth about its Director's double life. "He is now a madman, chained to his cell," Francis tells his companion in the garden, but it emerges instead that it is Francis who is the madman, and that the characters in his deluded tale are fellow-inmates of the asylum. Or is that entirely the case? As the camera gives us a last close-up of the Director we see a glint in his eye . . .

A fantasy of Perception par excellence – we are left to choose which of the two Realities is valid – TCODC is also a brilliant piece of moviemaking. All the settings are unashamedly stage sets, their angles distorted bizarrely; frequently Wiene masks the lens to alter the frame-shape in order to heighten the sense of unreality. The figure of the somnambulist seems a direct ancestor of the cinematic Frankenstein's Monster. Most available versions of the movie are substantially cut, some by as much as 30 mins.

The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), often listed as a remake, resembles TCODC only insofar as there is a character of that name and the tale proves to be the misperception of a mad person, in this case an elderly woman being treated by a psychiatrist in an attempt to cure her of sexual fantasies. A further loose remake was Dr Caligari (1990). [JG]

further reading: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: Texts, Contexts, Histories (anth 1990) by Mike Budd.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.